As regular readers of this blog know, I am fascinated by fiction that has a religious or supernatural aspect; particularly creative or unconventional ones. It is likely for this reason that MacAdam Cage sent me The Book of Neil by Frank Turner Hollon (and good for them for sending me a book I am likely to read).
Well, obviously the marketing did one thing successfully. It got me to read the book. And I enjoyed it. It was an intriguing story with some strong characters. But in the end it felt a little thin and didn’t quite pack the punch I expected.
Two billion people on Earth call themselves Christians. A foundation belief among Christians is that Jesus, the Son of God, will again appear in bodily form amongst us. If He returned in this age of consumption, technology, and self-indulgence, what would Jesus need to do to get our attention? What could he do to draw our focus away from reality TV, the internet, and another trip to the shopping mall? That is precisely Jesus’s challenge in this remarkable new novel, Hollon’s ninth. After months of being dismissed as another mentally ill street-preacher who is ridiculed, arrested, and ignored, Jesus robs a bank and ends up on the front page of The New York Times as the “Jesus-Bandit.” When you close the cover on this lean and powerful novel, one way or the other, you will not be the same.
The book is lean-it has the feel of a short story more than a novel. And I like the way Turner develops the characters in such a short space. And it is really in the way the characters approach and interact with Jesus that makes the novel.
Turner uses their reactions and wishes as a lens into their lives and relationships. Jesus in a sense challenges their worldview and reflects it back at them at the same time. This is well done and the characters feel real and have some depth despite the lean prose.
Neil is the lovable loser whose life is falling apart and grabs at the chance to shake things up but them almost immediately has buyers remorse. Edwin, the sheriff, feels trapped and insists that life has meaning because otherwise the tragedies of the past would overwhelm him (and they still might). Becky, the bank teller, views Jesus as a path to importance; as a way to be right when everyone else is wrong. There is even a cynical New York Times journalist, Chris, trying to get to the bottom of this case while also trying to sell papers.
All of these characters allow the reader to see himself and think about how we might react if placed in the story. And in that way it challenges both your view of faith and maybe the way you see the story of your life playing out.
As I said, the writing is well done and I enjoyed reading the book. It is interesting but not quite as mind-blowing as the publishers blurb claims (shocking, I know). I saw the ending coming a mile away and while I understand the reasons for such an ending it still seemed abrupt and less than satisfying.
All in all it was a quick and enjoyable read with interesting characters and a thought-provoking conceit at the heart.